SPICER — Ever since she was a senior in high school, Bonnie Hauser has embraced Minnesota winters by enjoying them on her cross-country skis.

Until this winter, when her favorite ski trails lacked the snow depth needed through all of December and well into January.

To her good fortune, the long-time cross-country ski enthusiast has found a new way to experience the joy of being outside in winter and the thrill of whizzing down hills through a wild landscape: Fat tire biking.

“Just loved it,” said Hauser, 60, of Raymond. She discovered fat tire biking at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center near Spicer in Kandiyohi County. It’s where a fleet of 23 fat tire bikes is now available for rental, and 4.5 miles of newly developed trail are waiting.

“I thought: ‘Why haven’t I done this before?” said Kathy Hartley, who also gave this sport her first try in December on the off-road bike trail at Prairie Woods.

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Hartley is an avid bicyclist. She stopped counting last summer after she put over 2,000 miles on her road bike.

But until December, she had never hopped atop a fat tire bike. She enjoyed her trial run so much that she went out and bought her own fat tire bike. Her home is on the north shore of Lake Florida. She now pedals over the frozen lake’s east shoreline and right to the Prairie Woods trail.

“It does give you a workout,” said Hartley of fat tire biking. It’s also a big reason why Hartley and Hauser enjoy this sport. Both appreciate the importance of staying active.

Each said they dressed in layers for their rides, just like they do for cross country skiing. It’s a work out that will keep you warm, they pointed out. The bikes are easy to manage over the snow, they added.

Nicholas Carman, a writer with Adventure Cycling, traces the history of fat tire bikes to the 1970s and 1980s when bicyclists in California and Colorado began tinkering with all-terrain bicycles. He credits the start of the modern fat tire era to Surly Pugsley and his introduction in 2005 of the first mass produced fat tire bike, the purple-colored Pugsley.

The wide-tire bikes are made for Minnesota winters. While they benefit from having a layer of packed snow, it doesn’t take much.

Minnesota is now celebrated for its fat tire destinations. The Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area near Ironton is the best known, but there are also very popular trails everywhere from the Split Rock Lighthouse State Park along the North Shore to the Richard Dorer State Forest near Winona.

The Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area has been seeing steady growth in fat tire bicycling, but never as much as this year, according to Nicholis Statz, its manager. A competitive mountain biker for over 20 years, he said he has never seen the influx of new off-road riders like this year.

Statz said the newcomers to fat tire bikes come in all ages. There are more youth trying out the sport than he’s ever seen. He’s also seeing more people in their later years taking it up. Many have been active runners, and appreciate the opportunity to remain active and outdoors without the impact on their bodies, he explained.

Cuyuna Country opened in 1993 as a state recreation area and has been developing its trail system ever since.

Yet there remain large areas of the state where there are few fat tire bike trails to be found. Consequently, the sport is still to be discovered by many winter enthusiasts.

Rick Norsten, owner of Rick’s Cycling and Sport Center, Willmar, said there is definitely growing interest in fat tire bicycles in west central Minnesota. “There would be a lot more interest if there were trails,” he said.

Norsten said another challenge right now is availability. Bicycles of all sorts and the parts for them have been in short supply ever since the start of the pandemic, he noted. By the same token, the pandemic has helped generate a surge in interest in bicycling and outdoor activities. It’s the most that Norsten has seen in his 45 years in the business, including the last 37 years as the owner of the downtown Willmar shop.

Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center is hoping its new off-road trail will help introduce more people to bicycling and the outdoors. Kory Klebe, environmental education director at Prairie Woods, said he believes demand for the rental fat tire bikes will continue to grow as people discover the sport and learn about their availability at the Center.

The Prairie Woods off-bike trail is designed for novice and experienced bicyclists alike. It includes loops with technical challenges for skilled riders.

Klebe said Prairie Woods has seen more people getting outside this winter. Many are on foot because the snow conditions have limited opportunities for cross country skiing and snowshoeing. He likes to promote the fat tire bikes as well as the kick sleds available there as new opportunities for people to enjoy Minnesota’s winter season.

“With the pandemic and everything, getting out and getting fresh air and exercise is more important than ever,” said Klebe. “Instead of getting that cabin fever and complaining about a Minnesota winter, get out and enjoy it,” he said.

Hauser is doing exactly that. After her first fat tire ride on the trail, Hauser said she invited three friends along to introduce it to them the following weekend. “They loved it,” she said.

They rode through open prairie and woodlands, all of it glazed in rime frost. “Invigorating,” she said of the whole experience. She said she can’t wait to get back on the trail.